Suicide Prevention and the United Methodist Church?? Yep!

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For the past 5 months, I have been teaching QPR Suicide Prevention classes.  For the past 3 years, I have also been involved in the United Methodist Church, a denomination I was baptized in shortly after I was born.

What does the two have in common? What does the UMC Book of Discipline/Book of Resolutions have to say about suicide or suicide prevention? Does the UMC have any stance on the topic?

Actually, yes, it does in several locations:

  1.      Paragraph 161.N) Suicide—We believe that suicide is not the way a human life should end. Often suicide is the result of untreated depression, or untreated pain and suffering. The church has an obligation to see that all persons have access to needed pastoral and medical care and therapy in those circumstances that lead to loss of self-worth, suicidal despair, and/or the desire to seek physician-assisted suicide. We encourage the church to provide education to address the biblical, theological, social, and ethical issues related to death and dying, including suicide. United Methodist theological seminary courses should also focus on issues of death and dying, including suicide.

 A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Therefore, we deplore the condemnation of people who complete suicide, and we consider unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends.

We encourage pastors and faith communities to address this issue through preaching and teaching. We urge pastors and faith communities to provide pastoral care to those at risk, survivors, and their families, and to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide, seeking always to remove the oppressive stigma around suicide. The Church opposes assisted suici
de and euthanasia.

This paragraph in the Book of Discipline encourages me that my church stands behind me to help prevent suicides. Although we, as a church, are not doing a very good job of helping prevent suicides. My church is part of the Yellowstone Annual Conference (YAC), and the YAC, in partnership with Rocky Mountain Annual Conference make up the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area. Which includes the states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado; all 5 states are in the top 10 in the nation for having the highest rates of suicide.

2.       Resolution 2121. Suicide: A Challenge to Ministry: The apostle Paul, rooted in his experience of the resurrected Christ, affirms the power of divine love to overcome the divisive realities of human life, including suicide:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.        (Romans 8:38-39)

Paul’s words are indeed sources of hope and renewal for persons who contemplate suicide, as well as for those who grieve the death of friends and family members who have committed suicide. These words affirm that in those human moments when all seems lost, all may yet be found through full faith.

A Christian perspective on suicide thus begins with an affirmation of faith: Suicide does not separate us from the love of God.

Unfortunately, the church throughout much of its history has taught just the opposite, that suicide is an unforgivable sin. As a result, Christians, acting out of a sincere concern to prevent suicide, often have contradicted Christ’s call to compassion.

For example, victims have been denounced and presumed to be in hell, and families have been stigmatized with guilt and inflicted with economic and social penalties.

The purpose of this statement is to challenge and guide our caring ministries to reduce the number of suicides and to share  God’s grace so that the lives of those touched by suicide may be enriched, dignified and enabled for ministry to others.

Demography of Suicide

[stats from this resolution are out dated and therefore not included in this blog post.]

Suicide rates vary by age, gender and ethnicity but affects all peoples, regardless of education or socioeconomic status. The highest rate of suicide generally occurs among white males in later life. Among some Native American and Alaskan Native groups, however, rates among youth are several times higher that the US population as a whole. About 80 percent of those who commit suicide are male, but females are much more likely to attempt suicide. 

“It is generally agreed that not all deaths that are reported as suicides are reported as such. Deaths may be misclassified as homicides or accidents where individuals have intended suicide by putting themselves in harm’s way and lack of evidence does not allow for classifying the death as suicide. Other suicides may be misclassified as accidental or undetermined deaths in deference to community or family.” (National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, 2001; p.32)

Risk and Protective Factors of Suicide

Specific groups in society appear more vulnerable to suicide than others, especially if they experience certain precipants (events in their lives such as disease, loss of family, friends, job, severe trama, or other stress factors) and have easy access to a method for ending their lives, that is, if they are in an enabling environment. Studies show that 90% of those who die by suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, substance abuse, or both. These factors—vulnerability, precipitating events, enabling environment—must be recognized and addressed if there is to be any reduction to the suicide rate.

Youth experience alienation and rejection by society, family, and the church when dealing with sexual-identity issues, including homosexuality. For many youth, the only perceived way out is suicide.

Social interconnections, social support and life skills are shown to provide protection from suicide. These methods can be learned, and youth training, such as that taught annually by the Arkansas Youth Suicide Prevention Commission, is a major force for suicide intervention and prevention.

Societal Attitudes

The prevailing attitudes of society, both secular and religious, have been to condemn the victim and ignore the victim’s family and friends

There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved . . . the sting of death is less sharp for the person who dies than it is for the bereaved survivor. This, as I see it, is the capital fact about the relation between the living and the dying. There are two parties to the suffering that death inflicts; and in the apportionment of the suffering the survivor takes the brunt.

—Arnold Toynbee, from Man’s Concern with Death

Churches have denied funerals and memorial services to bereaved families. Victims’ remains have been banned from cemeteries. Medical examiners have falsified records for families so they can receive economic aid. Federal and state surveys of attitudes toward suicide confirm a broad spectrum of responses ranging from fear, denial and resistance to widespread support for suicide prevention.  Social and religious stigma is widespread. One report told of a long-time teacher of church youth who lost her son to suicide. When she returned to her class a few weeks later, she was told that because her son had taken his life, she was no longer to teach. In contrast, several denominations have in recent years adopted informed and more compassionate statements on suicide for their members. Frequently mentioned are the needs to remove social stigmas that discourage youth and others from seeking the help they need and for providing mental health opportunities for those who suffer from depression and suicidal ideation. The understanding support of family and friends as a major factor in providing such effective support is now more widely appreciated.

The Church’s Response

Recognizing that the church’s historical response to suicide includes punitive measures intended to prevent suicide and that there is no clear biblical stance on suicide, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church strongly urges the employment of major initiatives to prevent suicide, following the guidelines of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, the General Conference recommends to the boards, agencies, institutions, and local churches of  The United Methodist Church that the ministry of suicide prevention should receive urgent attention. Survivors of loss through suicide and suicide attempts should also receive priority concern in the overall ministry of the Church. Harsh and punitive measures (such as denial of funeral or memorial services, or ministerial visits) imposed upon families of suicide victims should be denounced and abandoned. The church should participate in and urge others to participate in a full, community-based effort to address the needs of  people at risk and their families. Each annual conference and local church should respond to issues of ministry related to suicide prevention and family-support services.

It must be emphasized that suicide increases in an environment or society that does not demonstrate a caring attitude toward all persons. The church has a special role in changing societal attitudes and harmful social environment of individuals and families. To promote this effort, the church should do the following:

1. the General Board of Discipleship shall continue to develop curriculum for biblical and theological study of suicide and related mental and environmental health problems and promote the programs recommended by the American Association of Pastoral Counseling and the use of scientific research of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and other credible institutions in the private sector, such as organizations within the National Council of Suicide Prevention;

2. the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry shall develop materials for United Methodist-related seminaries to train church professionals to recognize treatable mental illness associated with suicide (e.g., depression) and to realize when and how to refer persons for treatment; it shall ensure that all pastoral counseling programs include such training and strategies for ministry survivors of suicide loss and suicide attempts ; and seek attention to suicide in courses in Bible, Christian Ethics, Preaching and Religious Education as well as Pastoral Care;

3. the General Board of Church and Society shall continue to support public policies that: (a) promote access to mental-health services for all persons regardless of age, (b) remove the stigma associated with mental illness, and (c) encourage “help-seeking” behavior;

4. embrace all persons affected by suicide, including young children, in loving community through support groups and responsive social institutions, call upon society through the media to reinforce  (following published guidelines for reporting suicide and related matters) the importance of human life and to advocate that public policies include all persons’ welfare, and work against policies that devalue human life and perpetuate cultural risk factors (i.e., nuclear armaments, war, racial and ethnic prejudice);

5. affirm that we can destroy our physical bodies but not our being in God, and affirm that a person stands in relationship to others, but in our efforts to be more compassionate and care giving, avoid glamorizing the deaths of those who take their lives, especially young people. The loss of every person is a loss in community;

6. support the United Methodist childcare institutions that provide treatment for emotionally disturbed children, youth, and their families and retirement communities that are home for those where suicide rates are highest; and

7. strengthen the youth ministries of the local church, helping the young people experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ and participate in the caring fellowship of the church.


“The church is called to proclaim the gospel of grace and, in its own life, to embody that gospel. It embodies that gospel when it is particularly solicitous of those within its number who are most troubled, and when it reaches beyond its own membership to such people who stand alone” (Dr. Philip Wogaman, professor of Christian Social Ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary).

So the highlighted part in this second section really surprised me a bit, because in my time with the church, other than reading the above, I have not heard anything about suicide prevention from any church leadership.  I shall bring it to the forefront with those I come into contact with.

We even have a resolution dealing specifically with teen sexual identity and suicide risk.

3.       Resolution 2122. Teen Sexual Identity and Suicide Risk

In the year 2003 at least 700,000 high school students will attempt suicide—one in every 13 high school students in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among adults have steadied or even declined over the past few decades but teenage suicide rates have tripled.

A 1989 US Department of Health and Human Services study found that teens dealing with issues of sexual identity are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than are other youth.

The United Methodist Church, in Social Principles ¶ 162.J, states: Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons.

The General Conference will establish and fund a task group which will:

          •  Publish, in laypeople’s terms, a summary of current research on homosexual youth at risk for suicide;

                      •  Work with organizations currently doing research on these issues;

          •  Provide a directory of agencies working on issues of teen suicide among youth dealing with issues of sexual identity;

•  Publish a resource for congregations and families which provides accurate information, recommendations for programs, and pastoral guidance.

                   •  Make recommendations for legislative actions within The United Methodist Church;

          •  Make recommendations for programs for youth through congregations, districts, conferences, mission agencies, United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men and other organizational bodies of The United Methodist Church.

•  Report to the 2008 General Conference on its findings and work.
Adopted 2004

This section was adopted from the 2004 Book of Resolutions, and has yet to be updated even in the 2012 edition. Although, I was a bit surprised to see this line from the Book of Discipline Paragraph 162H, “Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons.”  As this contradicts other parts of the Book of Discipline, which I will address in another blog pertaining to reconciling ministries.

This section tells us that teens dealing with sexual identity are at higher risk for suicide than any other peer groups.  I think any group of peers is just as much at risk as others.  It’s just not teens dealing with sexual identity, but also teens dealing with pressures in life; pressures to be perfect; pressures to have the perfect game, perfect relationship, perfect grades in school, etc…  It’s not just teens that have these pressures but also adults. Adults have pressures in life to satisfy family and friends. Adults have pressures in life to be the perfect husband or perfect wife.

** The General Conference of the UMC is the governing body that institutes changes in the Book of Discipline and the Book of Resolutions, and convenes every 4 years.

** The 1 reference from the Book of Discipline and 2 references from the Book of Resolution are taken from the 2008 editions.


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